In Practice: Successful Implementation

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In Practice: Successful Implementation

Thank you for taking part in the conversation Principles of Persuasion: The Social Psychology Behind Change. Please take a moment to click on the bios of our Conversation Leaders and support their work and the work of New Tactics community members.

Please share stories of successful campaigns or efforts focused on mobilising target groups through persuasion

  • What specific persuasion strategies were used? how was success achieved? 
  • What were the key components to developing the messaging strategy?
  • What could have been improved?
Messages and messengers

As background, in the United States there isn’t a requirement for someone to have a government issued ID and, in states that require a voter-photo ID, the requirement is not embedded in their state constitutions. Finally, the “voter photo ID” question on the ballot in Minnesota did not accurately reflect the potential impact of the constitutional amendment—the question asked was not the exact language that would have been embedded in the constitution. During the state’s legislative session, when the sponsors of the bill were asked to clarify the language, they refused to do so. Early in the election year, over 80% of voters supported the measure. We needed to move it down to less than a majority.

Know your audience and don’t waste your time. Because a substantial majority indicated support for the question on the ballot in the months leading up to the election, our coalition knew we had an uphill climb. We needed to know how strong the support was and if there was potential to move people. We didn’t need to move all 80% so 100% of the voters would vote against the measure. We needed to move just enough people to prevent the new language from being embedded into our state’s Constitution. In other words, our resources were precious—and we couldn’t waste our time on arguing/ urging someone who would never move. We needed to focus on those who would move.

Know what words/ phrases move your audience. Simple changes in phrasing can impact what people think, even if it appears as if words have similar meanings. What works best: voter suppression, voter disenfranchisement, voter restriction, or something else? If you have the opportunity to message test and conduct focus groups, you can determine the most persuasive language to convince people.

Our coalition used one message before the testing was done and we learned that it didn’t work. In some ways, because we had data pointing towards the right words (as well as the wrong ones), it was easy to sway folks on what to use/ what not to use. That being said, we needed to make sure all coalition members adhered to the new messaging. The same messaging was used everywhere: press releases, letters to the editor, public presentations, flyers telephone calls, etc.

Know who your audience trusts/ respects. While words can shift opinion, those who use them can also help influence people. Our coalition was fairly broad and included a diverse set of groups: one that was led by college/ university students whose education and outreach work focused on college and universities while another focused on the elderly population; yet another ally was a state-wide group that focused on homelessness. In total, we had dozens of organizations involved—unions, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits. Each of those groups could educate their specific constituents on the issue and how the passage of a voter ID requirement would affect them—which was crucial to building opposition to the measure. Again, over 80% of voters initially supported the measure and, with our polling, we knew that some of those were members or supporters of the groups involved with the coalition.

Beyond shoring up the support of members/ supporters of these groups, we needed to reach out beyond our coalition. Again, we needed to go back to who we could move and then figure out who could influence them. Finally, once we figured out who the potential influencers were, we needed to determine how to approach them (i.e. did a specific coalition member have a relationship with them? If not, did we know someone who did have a relationship with them and get them to advocate on our behalf.)

One example of the coalition's successful outreach was our securing the support of two Minnesota governors (one sitting, the other retired) from differing political parties. Eventually, they agreed to appear in a television ad together in joint opposition to voter ID: many, including a leader of the other side, credited this ad as a key turning point in the campaign.

Another example of successful collaboration was with a group connected to rural voters throughout Minnesota. Their communications person had a keen understanding of how to work with media in the rural sections of the state, noting that the combined newspapers in rural parts of the state had a similar distribution numbers as the largest newspaper. So, while some groups focused on the largest newspapers, we focused on smaller, rural newspapers. We created a press pack that educated them on the actual language that would be in the constitution and potential impact of the proposed amendment on rural voters. The pack included visuals—charts, graphs, maps—and was provided in a manner that the local newspapers could upload and use. (We actively told them that it wasn’t copyrighted and that they were free to use if.) After we completed that, letters to the editors and opinion pieces were sent to those newspapers about once every two weeks, where each focused on specific groups of people who could be impacted by the amendment. Not all of them were published in all of the newspapers, but many of them were published. After the election, the data on how voters voted in those areas was tracked; compared to other rural areas in the state there was a significantly higher degree of opposition to voter where our outreach efforts were successful.

Combining efforts doesn’t always add to more chances of winning for both. One factor our coalition took into consideration was another ballot measure in 2012. This measure, if passed by voters, would have enshrined marriage in Minnesota's Constitution as solely between one man and one woman. A number of our coalition members wanted to have the two coalitions join forces and become one. In theory, the messaging could have been simple: just vote no. But testing found that combining the two efforts didn’t improve both efforts. For that reason, the two groups remained separate and, after Election Day, when looking at voter behavior across the state, we could see that not everyone voted “yes” (or “no”) on both questions. This doesn’t mean that campaigns should not be combined. I have heard of polling, where combining efforts substantially helped each one of them. What could we have done differently/ improved? There were a large and diverse number of coalitions working on our side, which, while key to victory, initially led to inconsistent messaging. We had also been using messages that weren’t tested and so needed to go back and shift our messaging when testing showed which was most effective. While it would have improved things to conduct message testing earlier, with so many partners involved I’m not sure it would have been possible.

Question I’m pondering:

  • If groups can’t pay for professional message testing, is there a way to check on terms used to ensure the phrasing works for a broad audience? 
  • If a phrase/ term is currently being used, what are ways to successfully implement a new term (and stop others from using the old term)?
7 Tips for Respectful Persuasion

Kathy - thank you so much for sharing this great example of developing messaging that was effective and successful.

It reminds me of a quote from the late Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, "If the facts don't fit your framework, the facts are wrong." I believe this is one of the reasons why shifting social perceptions and particularly shifting behavior is so challenging. New Tactics has a terrific in-depth case study that highlights the process of undertaking the transformation of a traditional practice in Ghana by Emile Short, Powerful Persuasion: Combating traditional practices that violate human rights.  As you pointed out, "Know who your audience trusts / respects". Emile Short highlighted, "The essence of the communication strategy is to recognize that people are very sensitive not only to what your message is, but to how it is communicated, and, perhaps most importantly, to who is transmitting it."

Philippe Duhamel garnered 7 Tips for Respectiful Persuasion from the in-depth case study to provide some insights into one-on-one persuasion techniques that I've found to be very useful. His tips are particularly helpful in trying to seek clues for developing common ground with someone when NOT the "facts" but where the social psychology aspects that Joel has raised in his posts starting with "Some background theory on the human mind", could be helpful.  

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Persuading someone is about listening and responding

Thanks, Nancy.

I couldn’t agree more with the importance of respect in conversations with the goal of persuading people. I once had a really good meeting with someone I didn’t agree with politically, but we both met each other with respect. While both of us were native English speakers, we talked about how when I said one thing, he heard a completely different concept or idea.

Polling data, which I mentioned earlier, tends to be good for broad audiences and can help shape how you talk about the subject with individuals. That being said, in individual conversations it’s important to first find out what is relevant to that one specific person (or perhaps group) and then connect that to your issue. Persuading someone isn’t about making a presentation—it’s about listening and responding.

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HI Kathy, and thanks a lot for sharing. My experience is that even very basic "round the corner" testing is better than nothing, and very often actually comes pretty close to the findings of big research. I'm not saying we shouldn't go big proper (and expensive) research of course, but empirical evidence is also precious. I think the most important thing is that the research, even super basic, is NOT conducted by the activists themselves. As I stated in my posts, there are a lot of biases in perception, and that counts for activists too! Message testing has to be done by someone who can come back to the team and say 'you know what, that slogan you all love so much, well it just doesn't work".


messages, messengers, audience sampling

Great post Kathy. A few quick thoughts.

Messages and messengers - I see organizations and movements (and funders) frequently devote more time to messages than messengers, but you cannot separate the two. Often the same message from one source will be heard entirely differently if it comes from another source AND this depends entirely on the audience. In our experience a message on an issue which is viewed in the US through a national security lens (e.g. anyhting related to the so-called war on terror) will be heard differently if it comes from a "validator," which is to say a person with an established military or national security credential. There is also a scale at play in these scenarios wherein the message delivered by the "validator" may carry more sway with a Democratic audience, but that will be even more the case with a Republican audience. This is also true even if the message could equally have been uttered by a lifelong pacificist.

There are a few really hard aspect to this. The first is that sometimes groups need to willfully acknowledge that they aren't their own best messengers. This is difficult emotionally and practically. Second, it takes a serious commitment of time to recruit and develop messengers and that long term effort is difficult to qunatify in a grant report and difficult to prioritize if it isn't the most pressing thing in your in-box. And finally, it raises fears that the group will never get credit for facilitating the process of IDing the right messenger to deliver the right message to the target audience and developing the relationships to get that done.

To be clear, I've offered just one example but this questions of aligning message and messenger to target audience plays out in dozens if not hundreds of different ways depending on the target audience.

Audience sampling - I'll confess that I come from a background of scrappy grassroots organizing and comparative resource scarcity. With that established, I think it is important to mention that there are a lot of ways to test messages without polling firms or focus groups. The first is to develop the messages you are considering and then literally seek the feedback of 10-15 people that are representative of the audience or leaders within the community you are focused on. Frankly many people don't do this because they are afraid of being rejected or called out on an ill-considered message. In my experience though, if you are not defensive and you are honest and forthright about why you are asking, most people and/or leaders will share their own honest opinion – and if they are an organizational leader you will likely be on the road to developing a valuable relationship. You can also do this with a random sampling of strangers and ask them for a few personal details to determine your "cross tabs." Yes, you might find this intimidating and yes, you may face some rejection, but you can also get some actionable findings for virtually no money.

It is also worth mentioning that many organizations avoid audience sampling because they are more interested in saying what they want to say than they are interested in genuinely knowing how their audience processes information or what that audience needs to hear in order to be persuaded. When that is the case, the odds of persuasive communications are not good.



Thanks Peter for sharing. The role of messengers can't be overstated. Whole campaigns fail because of badly chosen communicators and, yes, it's often because it's the CEO who wants to make it into the media.

For messengers, the FrameworksInstitute proposes a checklist:

Who is both knowledgeable and trustworthy on our issue ?

Who is likely to be perceived as an honest messenger by the target audience?

Who is likely to be able to satisfy these criteria AND generate media attention? 

I would add the matter of legitimacy: on some issues, the concerned people need to be the ones speaking up. Not just  to increase empowerment (although this is also part of what should be measured in a campaign), but also when the campaign seeks to promote the value of care and wants to create identification. So i'd add "Who is likely to trigger the emotional effects that we are basing our campaign on?"  


In my first posting, I wrote about how I was a member of a coalition and the combined importance of the right message and the right messenger. But, what happens if you’re the only one with the message? What impact can just one person have?

I once heard someone talk about how his coalition was formed. He showed us this video, where initially you see just one man dancing. For the most part the folks around him weren’t even aware he was there. But, he stuck to his dancing. Then, a second person shows up…a couple people turn their heads, showing that they were now aware that there was dancing--but they didn’t join in. Then, another person shows up. More and more people are aware of the dancing and, within three minutes the solo dancer had most (but not everyone), dancing. In fact, by the end of the video, you don’t see the person who began the dancing.

That’s what persuading people is all about—being like the lone dancer and sticking to it, even if folks initially ignore you.

Long Term Leadership Building

I love this video! Thanks for bringing it up. It is also been featured on a TED talk, see link. The TED talk brings up another angle that in addition to persistence, a movement need followers. Without the first few followers this dancing man would have been viewed as a crazy loner, rather than a trend setter.  It is the combination of persistence and followers that ultimately makes or breaks a movement.

This brings up question for me of how we teach leadership to children. Growing up, I was taught that  being an independent and strong leader was valued over being a follower. This became a distinction between being an individual versus being part of a group. If we fostered flexibility and compromise early on there would be less polarization later and less difficulty persuading those of differing view points.Even as we think of persuasion in the short-term, I'm curious what is the best way to implement a long term curriculum to encourage balanced leadership and coalition building?


I have never really worked on this, but in the course of recent research, I came accross a ressource that might help: 9 weeks course The Sprout E-course is designed to provide young leaders with access to training in essential skills, including leadership development and team building

How a book burning campaign saved a library

Earlier, I posted about the importance of persistence with getting your message out.  But, planning and being creative are also factors in success.

I thought I’d share this video, which highlights how a small group of people quickly and successfully responded to what they thought was important: the public library.

As background, there was a question on the ballot to increase taxes by 0.7% to help fund the library. A “well-organized and well-funded” group “dominated the conversation,” and "changed the topic from library, books and reading to taxes, taxes, taxes."

Without money and with just a limited amount of time, those who supported the library knew they needed to move the conversation from taxes to the importance of the public library. Focusing on books in general or favorite authors would have a limited impact on the conversation. But, inviting voters to a book burning party after Election Day really riled people up.

As the video demonstrates, the conversation surrounding the library quickly changed. And, once it reached "a fevered pitch,"  they revealed the true intent of the campaign. Not only did the measure pass, 342% more people than projected showed up to vote. 

The success of the campaign was that they had a good plan in place to implement it.  

Also in the video, the differing ways advocates communicated to stakeholders were highlighted: creating a book burning party facebook page, creating and posting videos, tweeting, lawn signs, newspaper ads about the book burning party, etc.

  • What are your thoughts on the outlets and tools (print media, social media, tv & radio, telephone calls, door knocking, etc.) we use to activate and engage people? Are some becoming outdated?
  • How effective are the newer communication methods? (And, importantly, how can we make them more effective?)

Thanks for sharing this Kathy. This campaign documentation is one of my favorites! It particularly well makes the case for FRAMING. basically they report that they changed the frame of the debate from "TAXES" to "LIBRARY". What social psychology would suggest is that campaigners successfully tapped into the values of Care ("don't harm books") and, to a lesser extend, Authority ("leave our institutions standing"). Also the fear of loss, which is a powerful drive, has been very cleverly handled. I expand a bit on these principles in the "theory" thread.

There is much more to say about framing and maybe specific experts would come in to tell us more??


book burning

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this. I'm not 100% convinced that "all press is good press" but I am convinced that if no one is talking about an issue at all, the likelihood of persuasion is non-existent and if there is a conversation, but it is all wrong, you simply have to change it.

Taking a risk like this is hard. I would love to learn more about the discussions that preceded the launch of the campaign. I'd also be very curious to know more about how the group weathered the social media backlash and decided when to reveal their goal. Those were tough decisions handled well.

I will share that I worked on a legislative campaign that was dead in the water. Members of Congress were ignoring our pleas for their support. There was no media. There was no public interest. There was no money. So we created a very large prop to make our point and announced that we would be holding 45 press conferences over consecutive days in front of 45 congressional district offices. When all three TV stations, two radio stations and both newspapers covered one of the first ones because the prop was a great visual, members of Congress started to call us. We had clear asks and we stuck to them, but it got hard. At one point an allied House member, now a Senator, personally called me up and chewed me out, demanding that we cancel everything. Ultimately however, the campaign proceeded and when all was said and done, almost every legislator we targeted spoke out publically in support of the bill. We had to weather the argument that we were "burning bridges" but frankly we had nowhere to go but up. And critically, quite the opposite happened and many members of Congress were much more resposnive to our requests for meetings, etc. It may have been that they simply didn't want to deal with the hassle, but it was much better to have earned the respect that we were a force to be reckoned with than it was to be ignored.

Choice (and Climate Change Example)

It is interesting to consider the difference between warnings versus embracing unwanted situations. The campaign could have warned the public, declaring: “shutting down a library is like burning books.” I doubt that would have gained much traction. They may have been accused of being too dramatic. Instead of comanding the public, pretending to be pro book burning inspired outrage and provided the public an opportunity to oppose the library closure. Personal choice is an important part of a successful movement. No one wants to take orders, so convincing the audience to make their own (right) choice is more sustainable.

This is an interesting situation to compare to climate change.  Climate change presents dire consequences, but much of the public in the United States is tired of being told what to do. How we can inspire more active choice within the climate change action by ordinary citizens?

The COP21, UN Climate Change Conference, happened last December. It would have been interesting if an organization or even nation group had thrown an “end of the world celebration,” pretending to embrace climate change’s impacts, in order to inspire more drastic action. Maybe outrage against this could have inspired climate action. In the past the Maldives, low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean has used a similar tactic. In 2009, the Maldives Cabinet had an underwater meeting pleading for global carbon emissions cuts. This inspired sympathy.

What do you think the difference is between inspiring sympathy versus anger as a motivational technique? 

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short-term wins & long-term victories

In response to “Choice (and Climate Change Example), I’m pondering one point that was written:

“Climate change presents dire consequences, but much of the public in the United States is tired of being told what to do. How we can inspire more active choice within the climate change action by ordinary citizens?”

This comment reminded me of polls from another issue-area, where polling initially indicated a large percentage of the population didn’t think there was a problem. (It was something like 80% believed there wasn’t a problem while 20% there was a problem.) A couple years later, people were polled on the same subject and the polling completely flipped to where the vast majority of people believed there was a problem, but didn’t believe there was a solution.

So, while the messaging persuaded them to believe there was a problem, it did the opposite of motivating them to enact change—they felt powerless. This meant that the message needed to be revised to one where people realized they have the power and the potential to enact change.

Beyond just messaging, often there has to be short-term wins that build towards a long-term solution. There’s nothing more motivating for people to hear that they were part of a win (even if it’s small) and that win is part of a strategic path towards a greater victory.

  • Is it normal for movements to focus first (or too much) on persuading people there's a problem without considering solutions-based messaging as an important componet to outreach? Does the answer depend on the movement?
The importance of solutions and "small" victories


Thank you for raising this very critical point. That focusing only on the problem can lead to hopelessness and despair rather than engagement to find solutions. The "book burning parody" that you highlighted reminded me of a terrific way in which humor and satire were used in Russia to hold local politicians accountable for public road repairs - providing concrete actions that needed to taken by those in power. 

As Peter wrote in his response, humor used in this way is risky and can definitely collide with different perceptions of values. As noted with the tactic in Russia, "Caution should be exercised, however, in using humor in a situation where the stakes are high or the targets could react violently.The Russia example was shared in a previous New Tactics online conversation on Using Humor to Expose the Ridiculous that provides some excellent tips and pitfalls when using humor and satire. 

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This reminds me of another great campaign on roadwork that uses very modern technology, innovative communications AND humor. What a combination!! It obviously was very popular and immediately produced results. Granted, this is not a major conflictual issue, so the tactic is maybe not easily transferable. Still, it's inspirational!

Great example of a powerful use of social media


Thank you for sharing this great example and the video that highlights how powerfully social media was used to create change. It did make me think about the limitations of such forms of social media like tweeting for powerful persuasion. As you note, the examples we just shared do not involve highly conflictual issues. I really liked the video you shared that provided positive messaging while also provided positive respones to messaging from opponents meant to drive up fear.

New Tactics has adapted a terrific tool - Spectrum of Allies - that can help groups to reflect on their tactics based on where their target audience falls on the "spectrum". Persuasion requires engagement with those who have different viewpoints. This tool provides a resource for exploring those viewpoints.

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Great question! My research

Great question! My research has been on the public health community's involvement in the climate change movement. We see several obstacles to prioritizing solutions (even from people within the movement!) The mindset of the medical community is based on science and precise perdictions. Climate change predictions are not always specific (i.e. severity of the next storm, exact impacts of rising mosquito population, etc.), so we see frustration in the public health community. Many people continue to push for more research, which is needed. However, it is time for more action based solutions. This is possibly one of the greater failings of the climate change movement, an overemphasis of doom and lack of small concrete solutions. 

Movements should focus more on the role of a "tanslator," someone who can change the problem into an opportunity. I personally believe that solutions messaging should be present from the begining otherwise, the public feels powerless. 


Trust and Shifting Perspective

This is a very interesting topic. It raises several questions for me. If you have expertise please share!

1.  What do you call this type of tactic where you pretend to embrace and exaggerate the oppositions’ stance?

2. Trust: Some activists claim “all press is good press” strategy.  I am not so sure. This campaign took great risk and received great reward, but it seems that this sort of campaign could have backfired. Lying or misleading could easily cause mistrust and result in voters choosing the other side. What are the implications of trust in building a movement? Does this differ based on the timeline of the project?

3. Shifting Perspective: This group nicely shifted the conversation from taxes back to the communal value of a library. What are some strategies you have used to get voters to shift their perspective or reimagine the issue? From my experience with LGBTQ marriage amendment campaigns, one side focuses on liberty, equality and love. The opposition focused on “protecting” children.  Joel, what was the social psychology behind these frameworks? It seems that pro-gay rights activists use the principles of “care,” but how do they outweigh the opposition’s “care” for the children?

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framing debates in the US on same sex marriage

The initial framing was all about Rights and Responsibilities. The value wasn't CARE at all. It was almost all about fairness (and to a lesser extend liberty ie "let people be free to marry who they want") The aim was to get the public's support to the idea of same rights. This approach has been very successful, but opponents were clever enough not to oppose same rights, as this had attracted a majority support, even from Republicans, but instead opposed that these same rights should have the name "marriage". They played very subtley on the status-quo bias ("let's not change marriage") and on the fear of losing ("let's not redefine marriage", hence: "let's not take something away from you by redefining the value of marriage, ie YOUR marriage too").

LGBT campaigners then shifted radically to a care message, basing all messaging on love and commitment with the argument "same love=same marriage". This overwhelmingly persuaded the moveable middle.


On your first point: I'm not aware it has a specific name. Mocking or caricaturing, I guess.  I have to state though that this tactic works when it is so cleverly apply but a general rule is that you should never even mention or repeat your opponents views. According to the availability bias, people tend to remember/believe something the more they hear it, even if it is to disprove it. In the sentence "it's ridiculous to still think that homosexuals are peodophiles", the public might hear the whole sentence but only the end part will stick, if this is what they already think...This is why reactive campaigns are so difficult to get right.


Persuasion and bootstrapping

One aspect of persuasive communications that I think is particularly relevant to nonprofits with limited resources is bootstrapping your issue. What I mean by bootstrapping is thinking of analogies to other issues where the public has already been persuaded and then coopting their messages and repurposing them. 

I was involved in a campaign focused on the international arms trade and the effect of unrestricted arms sales on global human rights issues. As was often the case, we had very limited resources. Public knowldege of the issue was very minimal and we had to think carefully about how we might reach enough people to move the needle on some legislative initiatives. Long story short, we spend a lot of time sitting around our conference table discussing messages before we happened upon the idea of drawing an analogy between the nefarious influence of the tobacco industry and the nefarious influence of the weapons industry. Millions and millions of dollars had already been spent on public education about the tobacco industry and a significant amount of that messaging had taken root in the public imagination and discourse. Our idea was to use every theme that those millions of dollars had been invested in establishing and then re-purpose them to our context. A core component of the campaign was a beautful brochure with a picture of two young boys smoking cigarettes. The sole text on the cover was "If you think the tobacco industry is a corrupting influence..." Readers then opened the brochure to read content that made point by point comparisons between the political manipulations perpetrated by big tobacco and the political manipulations that are perpetrated by the weapons industry. There were two factors that were compelling about the content. The first was that the comparisons were very, very closely aligned with the respective manipulations being very similar. The second was that the scale of the manipulations on the part of the weapons industry were orders of magnitude greater, as was the resulting loss of life.

The most critical element though was that we were telling audiences a story that they already knew. We didn't have to teach the from scratch, we simply had to capitalize on an almost universally understood narrative about corporate self interest and indifference to human consequences.

Since the topic of the conversation is Persuasive Communication, I should complete the story by noting that we used this core them in advertising, brochures, campaign materials, etc. and the associated effort was enormously successful for advancing our fundraising and constituency building goals and secured the legislative support of almost every targted legislator.

Consider the "End User" Experience

Being people, we all find ourselves committed to our own ideas and interpretations of things and we instinctively find ways to reinforce them. This is doubly true of organizations. In the organizational context, groups have very real incentives to differentiate themselves from other groups in their pursuit of constituents, funding support and media attention. On some level, this is all very natural. On another level however, it drives organizations and funders alike into distinct silos that have little, if any, relevance to what tech firms might call the "end user experience," which might also be called your audience.

We are currently involved in intensive work on democracy issues. I choose that term specifically. One the one hand, a very large majority of Americans do not believe their democracy is working very well. On the other hand, there are silos about voting rights, redistricting reform, reflective democracy and most of all, money in politics – which itself has sub-silos focused on disclosure, campaign finance reform, a constitutional amendment to overtuwn Citizens United and a host of other legislative and policy reforms. These are all democracy issues, and there are others.

From the organizational perspective, there is a need to make the unique case for each and every one of these and to differentiate both the policy prescription and the organization pushing it. From the "end user" perspective however, the audience simply wants their democracy to work better and to represent their needs, hopes, and dreams. While any single one of the policy prescriptions alluded to may have its own committed constituency or funding base, the overwhelming majority of "end users" don't have the time to parse all of the details and distinctions. They have busy lives and a million and one competing demands upon their time. In other words, all of those efforts to differentiate, not matter how logical or well meaning, likely devolve into self-defeating white noise - non-inclusive and uninspiring.

Approaching the issue from the point of view of the end user however, means talking first and foremost about restoring democracy and providing your audience with hope that their despair can be alleviated – and only after that proceeding to a discussion about the breadth of potential policy solutions. Critically this means describing each as "a" means to the larger end, not "the" means. Instead of differentiating, making the case that no single solutions will get it done and they all need to be considered also shifts the frame from "the problem cannot be solved" to "the problem is entirely solvable because here are six different ways to solve the problem." It also allows every otherwise disconnected effort to instead be transformed into part of a mutually reinforcing whole. In short, it allows for the possibility of turning the white noise of competing ideas into a harmony, which is what the "end user" needs to hear.

Lessons learnt from same-sex marriage campaigning in the US

There is a great site that captures the lessons learnt from the campaigning: and a special page on "messaging, messengers and winning support", well worth reading in full, though I'm sharing some extracts below.

"The marriage movement’s messaging challenges were clear. While we hit majority support nationwide by 2010, there were still many conflicted people who's support was shaky at best. We were not making the case to  “conflicted” voters in a persuasive way. Moreover, we were highly vulnerable to opposition attacks that raised fears that marriage for gay couples would be dangerous to children.

At that point our movement had relied almost extensively on an informational approach that highlighted the 1,138 “rights and benefits” denied to gay couples, appealing to a sense of fairness and justice.

Our side’s emphasis on rights, benefits, and the intellectual concept of fairness was insufficient. A public education relied on new research, which pointed towards the idea of bringing more emotion into the campaign conversation, appealing to voters’ hearts as well as their heads. The campaign developed a series of ads featuring real people sharing their values and speaking to their aspirations for the gay and lesbian couples in their lives.

The county where this approach was tested became the only county in Southern California to vote No on prop8 (the constitutional amendment scrapping same-sex marriage rights in California).


Step by step we discovered the building blocks of a new message strategy: messages had to be in sync with conflicted voters’ — and most same-sex couples’— understanding of what was central about marriage.  Marriage, for these voters, was about love and commitment. To reach them and persuade them to vote in favor of marriage equality, advocates had to communicate that marriage mattered to gay and lesbian couples for the same reasons that it mattered to straight couples. »

This is what the new videos looked like:





Modeling a change Journey

Another great lesson learnt is the need to model the change journey. I'm quoting the same site again:

"Our challenge as advocates was to model the journey from unsure to accepting for voters who were truly conflicted." This video below is a great illustration of how to model a journey without mentionning any of the initial negative emotions (which could have the effect to reinforce them - see posts in the theory section on this).

The video also shows how the principle of the golden rule is invoked (principle of fairness - see theory section). It also strongly invokes liberty ("I wouldn't like to be told...")

Great videos Joel. Full

Great videos Joel. Full disclosure, I am already thinking about how to adapt (steal) the basic story arc to address the challenge of mainstreaming another issue.

Responding to attacks

The main problem is when attacks take us by surprise and we have no time to be strategic. But in a lot of cases, our opponents are predictable. Maybe we don't always do proper risk assessments ahead of time. Again from the Freedom to Marry campaign, an interesting experience of how to predict, and counter, opposition:

"Telling the right stories with effective messengers to persuade conflicted voters was not enough, however; we also had to respond effectively to attacks. We found that “two-track messaging,” keeping our positive values-based messages before voters, while adding a second track of response ads (which also invoked those key values) to rebuff our opponents’ attacks, was very effective.

We also vowed to find an answer to the arguments by the anti-gay side that marriage would be taught in the schools, or claiming that young children would be harmed.  Our team dug through round after round of research to understand the heart of their concern.  When the opposition went up on TV with their predictable scare tactics, our campaigns were immediately ready with response ads that had already been extensively tested. More importantly, we made sure we never got pulled off our core message. Even as we responded to attacks, we had a two-track television plan that kept highlighting the stories of love and commitment and the core values that inspire lead voters to support the freedom to marry. Here's an example from the Mainers United for Marriage campaign from 2012:


Preventing shenanigans


I completely agree with your point that there can be a certain level of predictability with attacks. This reminds me of a decision a group that had local chapters made for discussions—audience members were not allowed to stand and ask questions, they needed to write them down and a facilitator would read them. This was because the opposition would plant people and, if given the opportunity, they would take over the conversation, preventing the panel and even other audience members from discussing the issue. (Further, it meant that we would do all the work at advertising for the event, findng a venue, etc. and all they had to do is come and take over the Q&A.) I remember the one time a local chapter didn’t follow the rule. I was the sole speaker and, one audience member became upset—she literally threw her chair, yelled, and stood over another audience member in a very aggressive way. Luckily, no one responded in-kind and it seemed that her actions seemed to discredit her and her side.

Another tactic that the opposition used was videoing our panels or presentations. Some groups were concerned that the video would be edited in a way that would discredit or completely change a point we were trying to make. In response, some advocates ensured that one of their own staff (or a volunteer) was there to document the entire thing so unedited footage was preserved and could be used to counteract video shenanigans.

Do others have examples of things they've done to prevent the opposing side from taking over your events?

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